The concept of home automation is a sum of many parts, but as far as the intersection between consumers and creators is concerned, "smart" lighting is arguably the most important one.
"Smart" lighting—light bulbs connected to the Internet and controlled wirelessly via smartphone or tablets—is the gateway drug to full-blown home automation addiction. Once consumers install one or two app-powered bulbs, it's not long before they're hooked, sliding down the slippery slope of connected thermostats, motion-sensing ovens, Wi-Fi connected fridges and smart front door locks.
The rapid expansion of the smart lighting market over the last 18 months has helped bring the whole home automation market to the point that it's at now, teetering on the brink of mainstream. A relatively basic technology, smart lighting is easy to install, simple to control and works well in retrofit scenarios. All of which makes it the perfect jumping off point for a deep dive into whole home automation.
The Power of the Protocol
This combination of simplicity and mass availability has translated into smart lighting often being the first piece of home automation consumers install. It follows that the protocol and/or proprietary system that powers a homeowner's smart lighting choice will become a deciding factor as he or she looks to incorporate more home automation.
For example, if I buy GE Link LED light bulbs and a Wink hub to power them, I'm likely to look first at Wink compatible products when expanding my home automation portfolio. Whichever protocol dominates smart lighting in millions of American households will have a strong case for becoming the standard in home automation. Currently the biggest roadblock to mass adoption of home automation is this lack of an industry standard. Consumers are watching as big tech companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung snap up small players in the industry, and no one wants to be left holding the Betamax cassette.
Wireless Lighting Protocols
Mesh networks like ZigBee and Z-Wave, JenNet-IP, Insteon and Bluetooth LE are currently leading the field in smart lighting. The primary benefit of a mesh network is that devices can communicate directly with it, or through each other. The more devices you add to a mesh network, the stronger it becomes. Mesh networks also don't affect overall bandwidth of a home's Wi-Fi network and use very little power.
Bluetooth LE (also known as Bluetooth 4.0) is a relatively recent development. With a 30-foot range, it leverages Bluetooth connectivity built into newer smartphones and tablets to create its own Wireless Personal Area Network, eliminating the need for a proprietary hub or, crucially in some use-cases, the need for an Internet connection. The first generation of smart bulbs all require smart hubs—wireless gateway control systems which work by attaching a proprietary hub to a home's router Wi-Fi network. The hub then creates its own internal Wi-Fi network for the exclusive use of the lighting. The biggest downside of this is that more than one "gateway" may be necessary in large homes.
Straight Wi-Fi also works for lighting control, but the drawbacks of distance and speed mean this option is really only reliable if a home network is very strong, and with better options available, most manufacturers are moving away from simply connecting directly to the home's Wi-Fi.
Best and Brightest Bulbs: Color
While not the first "smart" light, Philips Hue, along with the Nest Learning Thermostat, brought the concept of home automation back to life. Resuscitating a dated concept that largely revolved around clapping your hands to turn lights on, Philips helped make home automation cool again by designing a product that was functional and incredibly awesome. Hue lights not only tap into every color on the spectrum, but they can be configured to run "recipes" that do helpful things such as turn blue when its raining outside or flash when you get an email from your boss, and of course, they can turn your living room into a disco party.
There are only a handful of direct competitors to Philips Hue ($199 starter pack, $59.99 per bulb thereafter). Lumen Smart Bulb Versifil ($69.99 per bulb) offers the range of color, but not the added functionality of recipes; the LIFX ($99 per bulb) boasts 1000 lumens over HUE's 600 and offers a bayonet option, which its competitors don't, but currently has no scheduling capabilities. The major distinguishing feature from a technical standpoint is that the Hue requires a hub and the other two don't.
Hue works over ZigBee Light Link with a gateway that needs to be plugged into a Wi-Fi router. The Lumen takes advantage of Bluetooth LE protocol to dispense entirely with a gateway. LIFX bulbs have a Wi-Fi chip onboard enabling then to talk wirelessly to the router or smart devices and talk to each other via a low-powered 802.15.4 mesh network.
Best and Brightest Bulbs: White
The introduction of affordable, standard white smart bulbs to the market has really driven consumer adoption. The Hue price point was always going to make it a niche product, but $15 for a smart LED bulb compared to $10 for a dumb one isn't that much of a leap for the average consumer. Earlier this year, Philips debuted a standard white version of Hue; Luxe runs $29.99 per bulb and offers the same functionality of Hue, without the color changing.
GE Link LED bulbs (starting at $15) work with the Wink hub ($49.99)—one of a slew of new products offering to help all your connected devices talk to each other—on a ZigBee Mesh network, and offer an inexpensive, high-quality lighting system for homeowners. The advantage of the Wink hub is that it integrates with numerous other smart home devices, helping reduce the potential for hub clutter, a real and present danger for connected homeowners.
Insteon's $25 bulb is perhaps the simplest solution for wireless lighting. Just screw it in and it connects to your Insteon network, which needs to be powered by an Insteon hub ($99). Insteon has its own protocol, the Insteon Network protocol, which is a dual-mesh (radio frequency and power line). This takes advantage of the home's existing electrical wiring as well as Wi-Fi technology. Insteon currently offers perhaps the most complete range of proprietary compatible home automation products, and it is expanding, incorporating compatibility with industry-leading products such as Nest.
TCP offers another low entry point for smart white lighting with its Connected Starter Kit ($79.99) that includes two bulbs and a hub that connects to a home's Wi-Fi router. Individual bulbs start at $19.99. TCP's lighting solution uses NXP's JenNet-IP protocol, a competitor to ZigBee Light Link. An IP based low power WPAN, the JenNet-IP protocol's primary benefit is its scalability. The TCP hub can accommodate up to 250 bulbs, compared to 50 for the Philips Hue Bridge.
TCP recently announced a partnership with Belkin's WeMo product lines. This will vastly increase the feature-set of its bulbs, which is currently limited to scheduling and dimming. The partnership will enable integration with online services such as IFTT, the system Hue uses to create many of the productivity recipes offered. TCP bulbs will also work with WeMo products such as the WeMo Light Switch and Insight Switch, helping integrate the lighting system with whole home automation. Currently TCP system works with the Wink hub. WeMo enabled TCP bulbs will debut early next year.
While home automation industry veterans may view some of the tricks the newest offerings in the smart lighting space can perform as just that—not-so-cheap tricks—the inescapable fact is that they are helping drive mass-consumer adoption of home automation, which is what will ultimately make all of our home automation dreams come true.
Jennifer Tuohy, shares her technology knowledge for The Home Depot on topics ranging from light bulbs and home automation to home electronics. You can find the LED light bulbs that Jennifer talks about in this article at homedepot.com.